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Reece McAlear double earns Caley Thistle draw with St Johnstone in Premiership play-off final opener

Reece MacAlear nets to make it 2-1 before he crashed home another to level it at 2-2.
Reece MacAlear nets to make it 2-1 before he crashed home another to level it at 2-2.

Caley Thistle stormed back from 2-0 down to hold St Johnstone to a 2-2 draw in the Premiership play-off final first leg – giving them a real chance of promotion in Perth this Monday.

Goals by former ICT fans’ favourite Shaun Rooney and Melker Hallberg put the visitors in control inside the first 25 minutes as ICT struggled to get a foothold in the tie.

Two quickfire Reece McAlear goals hauled ICT level and it really is game on.

The Highland hosts sought to follow on from knocking out Championship rivals Partick Thistle and Arbroath to reach this two-legged showdown against the top table’s 11th-placed side.

St Johnstone were the opponents Caley Thistle had to beat when they first stepped into the then SPL in 2004 under John Robertson and Donald Park.

Inverness are chasing history again. They aim to be the first team to come from the quarter-finals all the way into the Premiership.

They went into this opening contest with form behind them. Eight wins from their last 12 fixtures and only one defeat offered them hope.

Inverness CT’s Kirk Broadfoot challenges St Johnstone’s Cameron MacPherson.

St Johnstone lost their final league game on Sunday, 4-0 at Hibs, although Callum Davidson made six changes for a meeting which decided nothing.

Last year’s double cup-winners have toiled this term, but Dodds stressed this week that Saints still have plenty of quality.

Home defenders Danny Devine and Wallace Duffy were suspended, with the former’s red card dished out by referee Willie Collum at Arbroath leading to a failed appeal in midweek. He’ll return on Monday.

Shane Sutherland, who suffered a knee injury at Gayfield, will be sidelined for some time, with Roddy MacGregor and Tom Walsh also out injured.

There were four changes for ICT, with Cameron Harper, Billy Mckay, Joe Hardy and Lewis Hyde making the starting 11.

As expected, Davidson restored his team more in line with the side which beat Aberdeen 1-0 on May 11.

That meant returns for goalkeeper Zander Clark, captain Liam Gordon, James Brown, Murray Davidson, Callum Hendry and Melker Hallberg.

The hosts started brightly, with the highly-charged atmosphere adding to the occasion.

ICT keeper Mark Ridgers pulled off a fine diving save though after five minutes when Middleton, set up by Rooney, swerved a shot on target but it was tipped over the top.

Davidson was next to shoot when he collected a loose pass after Callum Hendry drove forward for Saints.

Inverness, playing with a three at the back, were being pegged back and another Rooney effort along the ground was clutched gratefully by Ridgers on 15 minutes.

St Johnstone’s Shaun Rooney celebrates after scoring the opening goal.

Three minutes later, Rooney got on the end of a Hallberg cross to bury a close-range header past Ridgers after beating Harper to the ball. He’s scored vital goals for the Perth side and this one could be as crucial as any on the way to cup glories.

The tie was in danger of running away from the Highlanders when Hallberg poked the ball over the line after Hendry’s shot was saved and Middleton was denied.

This was dreamland territory for Davidson’s men and a nightmare for ICT, who had not threatened as an attacking force.

Dodds brought on Logan Chalmers and Austin Samuels at the start of the second half, replacing Doran and Hardy and switched to the familiar four in defence.

Ridgers came to the rescue as he just did enough to push a Hendry shot over the crossbar in the first attack after the break.

Caley Thistle players celebrate the leveller.

Caley Thistle were failing to clear their lines and St Johnstone looked light on their feet as they probed for a third.

The lifeline for Inverness arrived on 73 minutes when on-loan Norwich ace McAlear crashed the ball high past Zander Clark after Samuels lined him up. Appeals of Samuels being offside were ignored.

That strike was followed up with a screamer of a 25-yard free-kick, giving Clark no chance after Davidson conceded the set-piece with a foul on Mckay.

Mckay was a whisker away from netting a winner, but it’s all in the balance in Perth at the other side of the weekend.

CALEY THISTLE (3-5-2) – Ridgers 6, Harper 6, Welsh 6, Deas 6, Carson 6, Mckay 6, Doran 5 (Chalmers 46), Broadfoot 6, Hardy 5 (Samuels 46), McAlear 6, Hyde 5 (Allardice 56). Subs not used – Cammy MacKay (GK), Strachan, Calum MacKay.

ST JOHNSTONE (3-5-2) – Clark 6, Brown 6, McCart 6, Cleary 6, Gordon 6, Davidson 6, Middleton 6 (May 69), MacPherson 6, Rooney 7, Hendry 7, Hallberg 7 (Butterfield 69). Subs not used – Parish (GK),  O’Halloran, Gilmour, Mahon, Ciftci, Craig, Sang.

Referee – Bobby Madden.

Man of the match – Reece McAlear.

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